The concept of vampires being dislikable rich elites is far from novel. After centuries of siphoning blood and resources from unsuspecting humans, many vampires acquire immense wealth and status—a symbolic representation of their leech-like feeding method. David Verbeek’s Dead & Beautiful, in contrast, posits what allure vampirism holds for those who already have everything. When five of the richest young heirs in the world find themselves sprouting fangs after buying their way into an Indigenous ritual, they are saddled with yet another asset in life: The prospect of immortality. What originally reads as a promising inspection of the insidious nature of immeasurable wealth never breaks free from a flat rigidity of character, plot and purpose.
A group of friends known as the “Circle,” all children of some of Asia’s richest families, finds themselves increasingly bored with their lavish lives of luxury. In order to introduce some excitement in their existence, each member takes turns crafting an exhilarating surprise experience for the rest of the group. Though they believe there is virtually nothing left for them to explore, Russo-Asian heiress Anastasia (Anna Marchenko) opts to take the group on a remote jungle expedition. Initially put off by the tedious journey through the verdant landscape, intrigue ensues when their Indigenous guide initiates a hallucinatory ritual that leaves the rich expats with little recollection of what they actually just experienced. However, two things are immediately made clear: The young friends have grown porcelain-like sharp fangs overnight, and the guide who performed the ritual now lay dead with two puncture wounds in his neck. Faced with a gripping predicament for the first time in ages, the group has varying reactions to their newfound state—with an unbearable element of privileged indifference often pervading their encounters.
Despite hints of complexity—international backgrounds, varied educational pursuits and personal domestic tragedies—the characters are nonetheless rendered into the flattest version of themselves possible. Lulu (Aviis Zhong) is meant to carry herself as a terse young woman (a product of a sudden parental death), but can’t break free of a stifling passionlessness, making her an incredibly difficult character to connect to—a flaw that becomes more pronounced as the film relies more and more on her perspective. Equally muddled is Mason (Gijs Blom), whose Dutch roots are teased as being related to their bloodsucking ritual by means of the country’s colonial roots in the Caribbean (and no doubt the residual wealth inherited from slavery by his billionaire parents)—but this detail is all but tossed aside. Bin-Ray (Philip Juan) and Alexander (Yen Tsao) serve as hollow stock characters, occupying roles of comedic relief as unhinged newly turned vampires with little else propelling them. The film experiences a similar predicament when it comes to its survey of wealth, dissatisfaction and exploitation—ideas surrounding these themes are kept well under the surface, never allowed to come up for air. Though subtly hinting at legacies of colonialism and the existential depression of those whose wealth is inherited, these thoughts are largely unprobed in favor of platforming a superficial cinematic slickness.
That being said, Dead & Beautiful’s cinematography is an undeniable high point. DP Jasper Wolf expertly conjures the film’s intentional glossiness, communicating an appropriately banal beauty indicative of unbridled excess. Yet imagery alone can’t lift the film out of its stunted stupor, often feeling like a saturated veneer on an otherwise poorly conceived project. The shiny, sterile view of a nondescript Asian metropolis feels tiresome after a while, with brief respites only felt when the Circle find themselves on sandy beaches or in well-lit chlorinated pools—arguably the most compelling moments in the film.
While the actors are uniquely positioned in the realm of modelesque polyglots, their inherent magnetism is critically underutilized. If their palpable intrigue was emphasized as opposed to merely exoticized, they would have carried a greater air of nuance, perhaps instilling the film with a semblance of purpose in turn. Particularly when considering Dead & Beautiful’s particular interest in depicting the listlessness of having everything you’ve ever wanted, the lack of tangible insight into the actual inner mechanisms of these characters is perplexing. When one turns into a vampire after already acquiring all attainable Earthly delights, it inverts the mythos of vampires typically reaching this state of bored opulence after centuries of existence. If a few 20-somethings can achieve this in two decades and change, what does this say about the ludicrous amount of wealth certain individuals are able to accrue in our late-stage capitalist society?
What could have been a cogent critique of the parasitic nature between the uber-wealthy and the labor they exploit is instead an overly muted (and eventually weakly meta) version of a tale that’s been told a thousand times before. Subdued and visually striking vampire movies have long advanced the subgenre (titles such as Ganja & Hess, Martin and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night come immediately to mind), but Dead & Beautiful pales in comparison, relying on slick style without fleshing out any sort of sanguine sustenance. The film ultimately fails to answer an important question: What happens when bloodlust is the only thrill that keeps a creature going?
Director: David Verbeek
Writers: David Verbeek
Stars: Aviis Zhong, Gijs Blom, Yen Tsao, Anna Marchenko, Philip Juan
Release Date: November 4, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.